Sunday, 6 November 2016

Farage loves a vacuum

It really shouldn’t be any surprise that we are in such uncertain territory over Brexit. It’s a pretty big issue after all. But, the longer the two majority parties vacillate over their positions, the bigger the vacuum being created for those who know exactly what they want to get from the June 23rd vote.

For all the cast-iron guarantees from David Cameron, the referendum was a never a vote the former Prime Minister wanted to hold. The offer was to placate his troublesome backbenchers. When, to considerable surprise, Mr Cameron led the Conservative Party to a House of Commons majority and the referendum became inevitable, it was still a vote that, for the most part, the former Prime Minister expected to win with ease. So, what preparation was done in case of defeat? Remarkably little, from all appearances. 

Theresa May’s favourite phrase these days is a commitment to get the ‘best deal for the UK as we leave the EU’, which one would hope is the basic requirement of any British government. But it says little about the relationship the government actually wants with the EU. From the prime minister down, government ministers and officials have been insistent that there will be no running commentary on Brexit negotiations and that by revealing the government’s ambitions they would be undermining their position before talks have even begun.

This is what the prime minister seems to fear after last week’s High Court ruling on the process by which Article 50 is triggered. Just what will the House of Commons want for their vote. Suddenly, the government risks losing control. Even though the overwhelming likelihood is that MPs will give their backing for Article 50 to be invoked, only this morning (Sunday) health secretary Jeremy Hunt repeated their concerns, telling the Andrew Marr Programme the ‘impact on the economy will be far worse if through some parliamentary mechanisms Theresa May is forced to lay out her entire negotiating strategy’.

This strategy does, however, rely on the discretion of EU countries; it would hardly be a surprise if the moment they receive the UK’s demands these find their way into the newspapers.

Simultaneously, we are left with a Labour Party which also hasn’t decided what it wants from Brexit negotiations. Jeremy Corbyn made an appearance in the Sunday Mirror in which he indicated he was willing to block Article 50 if the government breached his four ‘bottom lines’ including ‘access to 500 million customers in Europe’s single market’.

The only hiccup with this strategy is that it appears he hadn’t discussed it with his deputy leader first. With the ink still almost wet, Tom Watson was on the radio saying the Labour Party wouldn’t try and block Article 50:

‘We are not going to hold this up. The British people have spoken and Article 50 will be triggered when it comes to Westminster. Ultimately, when the vote comes Labour will support Theresa May to trigger Article 50.’

And, in reference to the apparent contradiction between himself and his leader, Mr Watson added: ‘We missed each other on the phone today.’

In many ways, it’s perfectly reasonable for the government and the opposition to be struggling to formulate exactly what their strategies are. Theresa May’s government received the ultimate hospital pass from David Cameron’s administration; it shouldn’t be much of a surprise they are taking a little time trying to establish what they can create from the mess.

And Labour’s problems must surely stem from a leader who has long been lukewarm towards the European project if not downright hostile. Mr Corbyn, after all, voted against membership in 1975, against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 and against the Lisbon Treaty in 2009

But, the failure of both to settle upon a position leaves the field wide open for those who do have agreed strategy and know exactly what they want from the Brexit vote.

The interim Ukip leader, still completely dominant within his own party, is the consummate campaigner of our age. In a time when mainstream politicians can be so fearful of the consequences of their words and deeds, Mr Farage benefits from being not highly electorally encumbered, letting him be nimble, proactive and impassioned. That many people can’t bear what he represents only fuels his enthusiasm for the fight.

In The Daily Telegraph last week, Nigel Farage wrote:

‘The British people voted to leave the single market, for full border controls and to take back control of things such as our territorial fishing waters. They expect to see all of this delivered.’

The British people, of course, voted for none of these things as they didn't appear on the ballot paper. Instead, voters were persuaded by a myriad of reasons to vote the way they did - principled, solipsistic and altruistic, and Brexit emerged the winner. But Mr Farage knows what he wants and, with a certainty of mind of which other politicians would rightly be jealous, can fill the airwaves and newspaper columns with his precise demands.

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